The White House was careful to emphasize last weekend that the president was under no constitutional obligation to cede the powers of his office to the vice president during his surgery. Mr. Reagan's letter to congressional leaders informing them of his decision to do so states explicitly that he intended to set no precedent for his successors. "I am mindful of the provisions of Section 3 of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution," he wrote, "and of the uncertainties of its application to such brief and temporary periods of incapacity. I do not believe that the drafters of this Amendment intended its application to situations such as the instant one."

It is probably true that Congress, in crafting the amendment 20 years ago, was concerned with prob=lems more serious than a single operation. Twice a president had been disabled for long periods. President James Garfield lingered for 80 days after he was shot in 1881; Woodrow Wilson was incommunicado for months after suffering a stroke in 1919. But President Eisenhower had been temporarily disabled, three times during his two terms, and it is the beauty of the 25th Amendment that it sets out procedures not only for situations of long-term crisis but for shorter periods as well.

The amendment provides two methods for transferring power to the vice president when the president is disabled. The first and far more complicated procedure is used when the president is unable to make the decision himself -- if he is in a coma, for example. That does not concern us here because President Reagan was able and willing to invoke the provision dealing with voluntary transfer of power. That provision is straightforward and easy to invoke and revoke, since the president himself is the one to decide when to resume the powers of office and his decision cannot be challenged. The drafters did this deliberately. "To permit the vice president and the cabinet to challenge such an assertion of recovery," said the Senate committee report, "might discourage a president from voluntarily relinquishing his powers in case of illnesses."

The 25th Amendment was adopted specifically to deal with the uncertainty that had existed when a president was unable to lead the country and no one else had been empowered to do so. There should be no hesitation to use the procedures set out in the amendment, and it was prudent for President Reagan to have done so. A voluntary act sets no enforceable legal precedent for his successors, of course. But his example was in the national interest and should be the standard observed by all who hold the office.